Press Briefing 6/19/09

June 20, 2009 | 53:28

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing. (public domain)

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Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 6-19-09


Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                                     June 19, 2009


James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:15 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS:  Good afternoon.  Let me take 10 seconds to get organized.  Let me quickly go through a week ahead for your planning.

The President will spend the weekend in Washington and has no scheduled public events.  On Monday the President will sign the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in the Rose Garden.  On Tuesday the President will meet with the President of Chile at the White House.  On Wednesday the President will hold a town hall meeting here at the White House in the East Room on health care, which will be broadcast on ABC during prime time.  On Thursday the President --

Q    Do you know what time?

MR. GIBBS:  I believe it's taped at 8:00 p.m. and broadcast at 10:00 p.m., if I'm not mistaken.

Q    Coverage?  Are the rest of the press in there as well?

MR. GIBBS:  I assume so.  I assume we'll put a pool in there at least.

On Thursday the President will participate in a service event in Washington.  The President will also host a small group of Senate and House members from both sides of the aisle at the White House for an immigration meeting.  The meeting is to continue the conversation with the hopes of beginning the debate in earnest later this year.  In the evening the President will host a picnic for members of Congress and their families on the South Lawn.  And next Friday the President will meet with German Chancellor Merkel here at the White House.

Ms. Loven.

Q    The House resolution, it asks for a direct condemnation of the government in Iran's use of violence against protestors.  And that kind of direct condemnation has not come from the White House this week.  Can you comment on the resolution?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, obviously, we welcome the resolution and we believe despite the question that it echoes the words of President Obama throughout the week.  I think he --

Q    But you've been saying that you hope they don't use violence and directly -- it may be a small difference, but it's a big difference to some people.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President was pretty clear on Monday in the avail with Berlusconi.

Q    He said he was troubled by violence.  He didn't say they shouldn't do it or directly criticize them for doing it.

MR. GIBBS:  That's not the way I read it.  I think when the --

Q    I have the --

MR. GIBBS:  I have the same transcript right here.  I think when the President sits in the Oval Office and says he's:   deeply troubled by what I've seen on television, and the American people are rightly troubled by that; I think when the President discusses as he did with President Lee that something has happened in Iran, where there's a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures toward the international community that have taken place in the past, and there are people who want to see greater openness, greater debate, and want to see greater democracy -- I stand strongly with the universal principle that people's voices should be heard and not be suppressed.

I think the language in the resolution is very consistent with the language that the President has used.

Q    It makes direct criticism of the government, which he has not done.

MR. GIBBS:  We can quibble on this.  I think the President has been clear in standing up for the universal principles and deploring violence.

Q    So comment on the resolution?

MR. GIBBS:  As I said earlier, we welcome it.  It's consistent with what the President has said.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, continuing on that theme, what is the White House and the President's reaction to the supreme leader of Iran warning to protestors to stop protesting and calling on -- saying that leaders will be held responsible for bloodshed?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President addressed that also on Monday, that he believes, as we have said throughout the week and as I've said throughout the week, those who wish to have their voices heard should be able to do that -- to do that without fear of violence; that that is an important universal principle that should be upheld.  And I think he strongly supports that.

Q    So would he criticize or condemn this particular statement from the supreme leader?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President has been clear on what he believes:  that he believes strongly that people should have their voices heard, that clearly there is, as he said on Tuesday, a ferment in Iran that is bringing about change.

I will say, as the President has said, we're not going to be used as political foils and political footballs in a debate that's happening by Iranians in Iran.  There are many people in the leadership that would love us to get involved.

Q    The leadership of Iran?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  And would love to trot out the same old foils they have for many years.  That's not what we're going to do.

Q    Let me ask you one non-Iran question.  Do you have a reaction to the indictment of Allen Stanford?

MR. GIBBS:  I would certainly -- I obviously would point you for details to the Department of Justice.  But I think whether it's this indictment or previous indictments that we have seen over the course of many months -- I know we've talked specifically about Mr. Madoff -- there are those whose outsized greed robbed millions of people of their savings and created part of a culture that led us to parts of the economic disaster that we've seen in this country.

I think the President has tried to address some of that in different proposals as well as financial regulatory reform.  And we hope that those that have lost their savings will see justice.

Yes, sir.

Q    Earlier this year the special inspector general for TARP, Neil Barofsky, tried to get documents relating to AIG.  The Treasury Department rebuffed that request, although ultimately I think they did turn over the documents -- but the Treasury Department sought a ruling from the Justice Department on just how independent Neil Barofsky's office is supposed to be.  Please explain from the administration's perspective what exactly is going on here and why it appears as though the Treasury Department is pushing back against an independent inspector general.

MR. GIBBS:  Obviously, Jake, the President believes that inspectors general fulfill a unique and important role in ensuring that programs operate with efficiency.  No attorney-client privilege on any of this stuff has been invoked.  No documents sought have been or are being withheld.  The DOJ review is not related to any particular investigation.  It is sorting out the legal issues relating to the creation of the office.

Q    Right, but could you explain -- could you actually answer my question?  I understand the talking points you've been given, but can you answer my question, which is, why would the Treasury Department push back against the inspector general trying to get the documents --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, again --

Q    I understand the --

MR. GIBBS:  I would point you to DOJ on the specifics on the specifics of that, and point you to the fact that the documents haven't been withheld.

Q    But Robert, we're only, what, 150-some days into this --

MR. GIBBS:  A hundred and fifty one.

Q    A hundred and fifty one days into this presidency.  Already the President has fired one inspector general, and his Treasury Department is challenging the independence of a different inspector general.  Can you understand why people who believed the President when he talked about the desire to be held accountable and the need for transparency would say --

MR. GIBBS:  Jake, we outlined the reasons why the inspector general for the Corporation of National Service, acted upon by the bipartisan board, recommended that he not be retained.  I think we've discussed that.  I know you've discussed that with the staff in many ways, and there are issues that are being sorted out in terms of the creation of different offices, but no documents are being withheld.

Q    Right, but why did the Treasury Department push back?  I understand ultimately they gave the documents, but why did they not --

MR. GIBBS:  I don't have anything from Treasury.  I can certainly look and see what legal issues they were concerned about.

Q    Is the precedent that -- do you believe, does the President believe that the inspector general should be able to get whatever documents he needs to --

MR. GIBBS:  The inspector general has gotten those documents.

Q    With a struggle.

MR. GIBBS:  Jake, I don't know how -- more to say that the inspector -- the answer to your question is the inspector general has the documents that the inspector general wanted.

Q    Well, either the Treasury Department respects the office of this inspector general or it doesn't.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, Jake, we can go back and forth on your question and my answer.  I think I've answered the question.


Q    Is the President going to drop the public option in lieu of the opposition on the conservatives on the Hill --


Q    -- including the Democrats?


Q    He's going to fight for it?

MR. GIBBS:  The President believes strongly that for the uninsured entering the market there has to be choice and competition.  The American people, coincidently, believe that too.  The President believes it's an important aspect of any health care reform plan that has to go through Congress.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, in light of the Ayatollah's comments and just the overall climate in Iran, is it more difficult now for the administration to have any kind of significant dialogue with Iran over the nuclear issue?

MR. GIBBS:  The President and the team don't believe so.  This is -- again, we've talked about this, our interests remain the same.  We're concerned about the Islamic Republic living up to its responsibilities as it relates to nuclear weapons.

Q    But if they're saying -- the Ayatollah is saying, you know, the U.S. is giving mixed messages or the President, specifically -- I mean, how will that complicate the dialogue?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't think anybody should be under the illusion that any of this will be easy, but our interests remain the same, I think the interests of the world remain the same.  I think, again, we have a pretty good sense of what not engaging with Iran, what the results of that are, in the number of several thousand spinning centrifuges.  The President discussed the notion that we have to do things differently and I think you see, as we've said, we've seen at least the ferment, as the President said, of productive change in Iran.

Q    And I'm wondering if -- you know, the fact that the President has said he doesn't want to meddle in the election there, is it not possible to have very strong language in support of the Iranian people without meddling?

MR. GIBBS:  Oh, it is -- the President did it on Monday and Tuesday.

Q    But some would believe that it's not strong enough.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I know there are some Republicans that didn't believe it was strong enough.  There are some Republicans that did believe it was strong enough.

Q    But is it possible for him to have stronger language without taking sides?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President feels comfortable with the strong language that he employed on Monday and Tuesday to discuss this very situation.  But, Dan, let me repeat again, there are people in Iran that would love for us to get involved.  There are people in Iran who would love not to make it about one side in Iran versus another, but to make this about Iran versus the West or Iran versus the United States of America.  It worked great for years.  The President is not going to do that.  I think many others, Democrat and Republican, have discussed the wisdom in that stance and the President is quite comfortable with where he is.

Q    Can I just follow, Robert?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    As far as Iran is concerned, President has been reaching to everyone in that part of the world, including his speech in Turkey, his speech in Cairo, and here a very clear message as far as democracy and changes in those part of the world was concerned.  You think President's voices are being heard and his message, because what he was expecting that we care for you, but you (inaudible), we will work with you and changes must come in that part of the world just like in the U.S. or elsewhere.

MR. GIBBS:  I think that the actions that the administration has taken and the voice of this President in reaching out, whether it was interviews early in the administration, messages to the people, directly to the people of Iran, the speech in Cairo -- I do think that people have heard the President's message.  The President understands that five months of activity or an interview, a message and a speech aren't going to change everything overnight.  But I think the President feels confident that we're making progress in that region of the world.

Q    One more, please?

MR. GIBBS:  Let me go with Chip.

Q    Maybe I missed this and maybe it's redundant, but I just want to get it clarified.  Does the President condemn the actions of the Iranian government?

MR. GIBBS:  He has condemned the violence.  He's condemned --

Q    But does he condemn the actions of the Ayatollah --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, the violence is being conducted by the government, right?  The Revolutionary Guard -- the pictures that we saw on Monday that the President reacted to, that was them.

Q    So he's clearly condemning the government of Iran?

MR. GIBBS:  I think if you look at what he said throughout the week, it's clear.

Q    On health care, some dire reports out there -- I'm sure they're much more dire than you think they ought to be -- but there have been delays up there.  There are a lot of Democrats who say that the price tag now is just eye-popping, especially in light of the CBO analysis.  And there are -- and Republicans feel they're getting tremendous traction here on the cost issue and that the tide is turning in their favor.  Is this coming off the rails to any degree?

MR. GIBBS:  No.  I'm reminded that in five short months of the administration, about every six weeks I'm asked if the current initiative is heading off the rails; if something has unwound.  We did it with the recovery plan, we did it with our budget, we did it with the recent supplemental --

Q    But this is much bigger and more difficult than any of those.

MR. GIBBS:  I would love to have posited that in response to one of your questions in, say, early January, mid-March, or just a few weeks ago in the supplemental.  Look, Chip, there is a legislative process that takes time to wind its way through.  This is an issue --

Q    What inning are we in?  What inning are we in on health care?

MR. GIBBS:  Early, right?  Maybe second?  You still got plenty of time to get a beer and a hot dog before last call.  (Laughter.)

Q    They don't have hot dogs.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I was going to say maybe a better alternative than a hot dog.  I'm going to get a hot dog.

But look, I think we had an introduction of a bill in the House today -- or a release of a piece of legislation in the House today that upholds the President's goal of cutting costs, increasing the quality of health care in America, broadening accessibility.  The health committee that Senator Dodd is leading right now is marking up a bill and making progress.  I think we continue to put one foot in front of the other in the march toward health care reform.

But as I've said before, there's a reason this is an issue that's been debated back and forth for 40 years.  Again, I think some of the most important things that came out of CBO this week were underscoring -- I know this doesn't get a lot of news attention because there's no conflict -- but underscoring the notion that the President has outlined a series of steps that CBO believes must be taken in order to deal with the rising costs of health care as it relates to the government's budget.

We think those are all positive developments and we have -- I think if you look back at some of the efforts that have been done over the past few decades, we have stakeholders that are involved in this that are on occasion split up and on different sides and shooting back and forth at each other that are all at the table working on this.  So I wouldn't call it a game in the second inning.


Q    I want to follow up on the Iran stuff.  You said nothing would change -- you know, sort of, nothing is going to change sort of what the President wants to do in a policy toward Iran and having to do with the nuclear situation.  Does the administration believe there should be consequences, though, in any future dialogue that is started, or whatever, based on the actions that the Iranian government has taken in this time period?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't want to get ahead of any of the dialogue.  I think the President has been clear in underscoring and deploring the violence.  But as I've said, Chuck, we still have U.S. interests on many issues including the one on nuclear weapons.

Q    So what message does that send?  I mean, one of the things that you guys --

MR. GIBBS:  The message that it sends is we're very clear about dealing with their nuclear weapons.

Q    Even if it means dealing with a regime that you think may have stolen an election, may have started violence, may have pushed back -- set back freedom, potential for freedom?

MR. GIBBS:  This is about -- well, I think the President and the international community understand the importance of dealing with what they all believe is the danger of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon.

Q    Are you going to look to the United Nations for some international capacity to sort of condemn -- if there is -- because of this violence that you now say that we should -- that you guys have condemned the Iranian government -- should there be some sort of U.N. action that maybe does this?

MR. GIBBS:  I have not talked to anybody on our team at the U.N.  I think what you see -- I think you see the size of marches increase.  I think you see the passion increase.  But I don't know of any steps that are happening at the U.N.

Q    Quickly on immigration.  He said something today in his speech at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, that he wanted to seek comprehensive immigration reform.  In his hundred-day press conference he talked about -- he seemed to step back from that.  So what's changed since -- before he said, "We want to enforce some laws on the books, then we'll start looking at trying to do some more."

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that --

Q    I mean, has something changed since the hundred-day --

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think the meeting next week will continue this process.  But as we've said before, Chuck, we know there's -- we know the votes aren't there right now.  This is a --

Q    And that's what's dictating the timetable.  (Laughter.) 
MR. GIBBS:  I'll point you ad nauseum to any number of the questions on health care that might -- I mean, yes, if we can't seek 50 plus one, it will be tough to pass.

No, I mean, to be more serious, I think there's a seriousness in an effort, but in understanding that in -- I think in 2005 and 2006, even in 2007, there was not a majority yet to do this.  We want to work with those, both in favor and support of those previous efforts, to see where we can get comprehensive immigration reform to pass.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    Back on health care for a moment.  The Senate Finance Committee is trying to bring the total costs of the bill down to a trillion dollars or less, and I understand the White House supports that goal, as well.  Are you willing to make the tradeoffs that would be needed specifically in order to bring the costs down?  Forget about the pay-for, but just to bring the actual costs down you're going to have to turn back the benefit package, turn back the number of people who qualify for subsidies, the size of the subsidies; that's how you bring the costs down.  Is that a tradeoff that you're willing to make?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think we continue to watch what's going on as the finance committee works through this process.  I would mention that the President has put, I think at last count, $950 billion on the table as -- you're shaking your head -- it's actually --

Q    No, but that's not really relevant to my question.  My question is, how do you pay for it; my question is, how much do you need to pay for?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, but you did talk about pay-fors, right?  And if we're going to talk about -- if you're going to talk about trimming the cost down to a trillion, then I'm going to tell you that $950 billion has been put on the table.  I actually think $950 billion of a trillion is actually a relevant part of the conversation to have.  The President believes it's a relevant part of the conversation.  He's talked about the fact that this plan has to be deficit-neutral.  I think in many ways that's a good portion of the answer.

The President isn't going to sign a health care bill -- I know you're shaking your head, let me just try to finish this.  The President is not going to sign a health care bill that increases the size of the deficit.  In fact, the budget resolution won't allow him to do that, right?  Right.

So $950 billion is indeed relevant because having a series and an amount of money in order to pay for that bill equaling the cost of that bill will be part of what has to happen in order to get that through the process.

Q    I probably didn't ask the question clearly enough.  What I was trying to ask was not how are you going to pay for it, are you serious about paying for it.  You've spoken to that extensively.  What I'm saying is in order to bring --

MR. GIBBS:  Hoping, persuasive -- but yes, go ahead.  (Laughter.)

Q    I said --

MR. GIBBS:  I was pressing my luck.

Q    I said I don't disagree --

MR. GIBBS:  I put $950 billion on persuasive.

Q    I don't disagree that you have put $950 billion of offsets on the table.  My question is, in order to get the price of the bill down to $1 trillion from an estimated, what the last finance markup was, over $1.6 trillion -- in order to bring that cost down, there are consequences which are reducing the benefit package, reducing the subsidies.  And I want to know whether those are tradeoffs that the White House is willing to make.

(Cell phone rings.)

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  We are -- whose phone is that?  All right, I'm kind of itchy here on Friday, I would love to take somebody's phone.  (Laughter.)

Obviously this whole process is going to be about how do we get something that is paid for and gets through the legislative process.  I think the President has discussed this throughout the campaign.  And I don't know what the structure, in all honesty, of what is contained in the finance committee's markup package of what -- all the details of what that benefit looks like, the degree to which it goes out in terms of incidence of -- percentage of your income above some percentage of poverty.

But there's no doubt that these are exactly the types of tradeoffs and decisions that are going to have to be made throughout this process in order to get something -- whether it's -- regardless of what that ultimate number is -- and, again, the President has been very forceful in saying that that number has to be paid for, and that in looking for those resources we have to take the steps necessary, as we talked about a little earlier ago, to bend the curve on the government's cost of health care in the future; that if we're not taking those steps, then we're not getting health care reform.

So all of those things are what I think will be -- will take up Congress's time and the President's time in the next few weeks.

Yes, sir.

Q    On tobacco and this legislation he's going to sign on Monday, to what extent can we expect him to fold his own experience into what he's going to say, his own experience with smoking?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I anticipate he'll have -- he'll mention that in the remarks.  You know, as we talked about last week when the President discussed his pleasure in seeing a bill that has wound its way through a legislative process for more than a decade to land on the President's desk for his signature -- he understands the struggles of millions of Americans with tobacco.

Yes, sir.

Q    When will the President sign the war supplemental?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't have an answer on -- I don't know that we've received the legislation yet, but it will be -- I don't anticipate that it will take long after we receive it.

Q    On Iran, Republican Leader John Boehner said today that the U.S. should lead an international embargo on gasoline sales to Iran as a way to encourage the government not to use violence against protestors.  Does the President think that's a good idea, or are there other concrete steps the U.S. could take to --

MR. GIBBS:  I didn't see those comments before I came out here.  We can have somebody look into that.  Sanctions is something we've discussed.  The President authored a bill that I can get you the details on, that as I recall was blocked last year by a Republican to put some stronger sanctions on Iran, and we'll get you some information on that.

Q    But do you think that sanctions now are an appropriate response to the way the Iranian government is behaving towards protestors?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, you know, I think the President -- well, I don't want to get into the tit-for-tat on that right now.


Q    Just to follow up on that quickly, when you said, "Sanctions are something we've discussed," you mean generally -- not in the context of this crisis?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I'm sorry.  Yes, thank you, yes.

Q    Yes, I just wanted to clarify that.

All right, I've got three topics, but one question on each, I promise.

MR. GIBBS:  Okay.  Hey, don't tell me. (Laughter.)

Q    Does the White House believe the Congressional Budget Office is an effective and reliable arbiter of the scoring of health care proposals and does it have any --

MR. GIBBS:  To you it certainly does.  (Laughter.)

Q    -- sort of say about the House Speaker and Chris Dodd, who were significant players in this debate, both in the last 48 hours criticized CBO's methodology and the scoring that has come up --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, but remember -- and I haven't seen the exact comments, but remember that -- and I think even --

Q    The Speaker said she's frustrated because the CBO, in her words, always comes up with a "worst case scenario."  And Dodd has said he's never understood why we have to please the CBO instead of ourselves as legislators.  Is there -- and I just wondered if the White House is satisfied with that kind of commentary.

MR. GIBBS:  Maybe some of that frustration is the fact that right now CBO is looking at older proposals or half measures.  I think the Dodd legislation that originally was scored wasn't a final product.  I don't think there were savings mechanisms in there about bending the cost of health care.

But look, the President, as I said pretty clearly today, the President is going to look for health care reform that's fully paid for.

Q    By the measurement of the Congressional Budget Office.

MR. GIBBS:  Unless or until somebody comes up with something different, yes.

Q    On North Korea, under the sanctions, any member nation that wishes to enforce either the tracking of a suspect vessel or its inspection or shepherding that vessel to port must obtain the permission from its own government at the political and military level.  That's the language within 1874.  Has the President been asked for permission for the U.S. Navy to board --

MR. GIBBS:  Not that I'm aware of.

Q    Okay.  And is there anything about the cargo on this vessel that leads you to believe that request is likely to come?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't want to get into that sort of specificity.

Q    Okay.  Last topic.  The prayer breakfast today reminded me of something the President said during the campaign, that he would hope to or he probably would have a church selected for his and the girls' and Michelle's attendance in January.  We're now in June -- can you update us on either the President's churchgoing habits or his process in selecting a church?

MR. GIBBS:  I know they're continuing to look for a permanent place, mindful of many things.

Q    Such as?

MR. GIBBS:  What it does when a President decides to walk out of this building and walk into a different building and disrupt worshippers that are attending for their own personal reasons.  I think that is certainly -- that's not an exhaustive list, but certainly one of the things that the President has on his mind about that.

Q    Anything else that he has on his mind about it?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I think there's wanting to ensure that he finds a church that he, Michelle, and the girls feel most comfortable in.

Q    Robert, following on that --

Q    Does he use the chapel in Camp David?

MR. GIBBS:  He does.

Q    Robert, a follow on church?

MR. GIBBS:  Sure.

Q    Is the President, since he has not found a church home here in Washington yet, is he -- is a minister being brought in to the White House on Sundays to have a service with the family?  And is that also happening at Camp David?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, as I've just said to Major, the President has been and very much enjoys the chapel and the chaplain up at Camp David.  I don't know that anybody has been brought in here.

Q    And also real fast on something, the Senate has unanimously passed a symbolic resolution apologizing for slavery and racial segregation, and sent the measure to the House.  This being the first black President -- Bill Clinton did not apologize for slavery; George W. Bush said he would not do it as Africans were also involved in the slave trade.  Does this President think that that's something that should indeed happen?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I have not spoken with him specifically about the Senate resolution and I'd want to get his view on that.

Q    Okay, well, what is the President's thought about slavery, especially since he invoked --

MR. GIBBS:  Opposed.  (Laughter.)

Q    Excuse me?

MR. GIBBS:  Opposed.

Q    Especially since --

MR. GIBBS:  April, you just asked me what the President's view on slavery was.  What did you think I was going to say?  (Laughter.)

Q    You didn't let me finish my --

MR. GIBBS:  Okay, look, this is a very serious topic --

Q    Yes, thank you.

MR. GIBBS:  -- I just want to note that that was your question.  Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Q    Okay, but I want to finish the statement --

MR. GIBBS:  And it does drive me crazy when one doesn't get a chance to finish their entire statement before somebody else -- I'm sorry, I'm off track, go ahead.  (Laughter.)  It is Friday, guys; I'm just trying to have a little fun.

Q    Anyway, you know, especially dealing with this issue of slavery, especially since he invoked the issue of slavery over a year ago in his Philadelphia speech on race, is it something that this White House could indeed tackle?  Bill Clinton tackled it and tabled it in his second term when he dealt with the race initiative.  Is this something --

MR. GIBBS:  Tackled and tabled what?  I'm sorry.

Q    The apology -- the possibility of an apology for slavery.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, one, I don't know if this is even something that -- just purely legislatively, I don't know if the resolution per se ultimately comes here or not for signature.  I don't know the answer to that.

Look, I think the President has spoken on any number of occasions about the stain that slavery left on this country, that throughout our history we have sought to better perfect our union and have had many bumps along the way.  And one of the most significant of those stains is that of slavery; that it is clearly something that we continue to struggle with.  The President obviously hopes that we can make progress on race relations and that we all have a deeper and better understanding of backgrounds and beliefs.

Yes, sir.

Q    We've heard senior administration officials say that what's happening in Iran is not about us.  And we've also heard them say that they've never seen anything like this in Iran before.  Does the White House think that the President's outreach to the Muslim world, in Cairo or to Iran specifically in the New Year's greeting, is influencing events in Iran right now?

MR. GIBBS:  I think -- I wouldn't in any way seek for the administration to take the credit for what we're seeing in Iran.  I don't know that -- as you said, I'm not sure that anybody, even a week ago or so would have expected to see the courageous images that we're seeing now.

I will say that I think that there are those in Iran and those throughout the Middle East that have noticed a different way of operating by this country, and that they've seen -- and I think we've seen some improved relations, and I think we've also seen some improvement in the way this country is thought of by many countries in that region of the world.  And I think that's tremendously important not because we all have to feel better, but because there are very important foreign policy and strategic interests that we've discussed a lot in that region of the world.

I do think that I think you are seeing in Iran -- I think you're definitely witnessing something extraordinary.  I think you're witnessing something that many people might not have presumed or imagined, like I said, just a few -- even a few weeks or a few days ago.  And I think part of that is sort of what we discussed earlier, and that is I think there are those in Iran that see the United States of America not as it has been described to them, not as those have wanted their people to believe.  I think that is a positive development for this country and for the entire world.

Q    A quick follow-up.  Do you have any idea how the Cairo speech was consumed in Iran?  In other words, was it shown on --

MR. GIBBS:  I can have those guys pull and see if we have stuff in terms of some of the social networking sites, or what media it might have been shown in --

Q    Farsi one of the SMS --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, yes.  So let me see if we can get you some stats on that.

Yes, sir.

Q    Just briefly, back on health care and the struggles of trying to figure out how to pay for what it is that is ultimately agreed on.  Obviously there's been some talk, at least among some of the Democrats, of additional taxes, various things that -- and also the discussion of taxing the employer benefits.  The Republicans, it probably won't surprise you to hear, are accusing Democrats of preparing a tax fest to pay for the President's plan, which is not affordable.  What's your reaction to that?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I mean, Mark, I think if you -- if I'm not mistaken, I can think of at least one Republican off the top of my head that talked about changing the tax benefits for the exclusion.  I think if I sat at Google for about five minutes I could probably get you several dozen.  I think one of the major reform bills that's up there right now that's been written by Senator Burr includes, if not a complete ending of the exclusion, some cap of it.  So maybe they --

Q    The RNC is specifically suggesting that some of these taxes are going to break the President's pledge of not taxing the middle class.

MR. GIBBS:  I think the President was pretty clear on that in an interview earlier this week relating to financial regulation.  I think the President believes, as he said in that interview, that he's put forward a course of action that he thinks is best able at this point to put that skin in the game.  The bulk of that is changing the way we pay for health care.  It's injecting -- it's taking subsidies out of -- for Medicare middle men, and it's going back to the charitable deduction rates of the Reagan era.  So I think there are -- the President feels confident about what he's put on the table.

Let me just go back to it -- I think I read this earlier, but wondered what the President said earlier this week:  "I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there's a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures toward the international community that have taken place in the past and that there are people who want to see greater openness, greater debate, and want to see a greater democracy."

Yes, sir.

Q    Back on North Korea.  Has the U.S. reached out to any other countries, as far as helping in tracking that wayward freighter out there that -- and is the U.S. looking at options beyond the U.N. resolution or possibly boarding it one day?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, again, I don't want to get into operational specificity.  As Ambassador Rice said here just one week ago, we sought from the United Nations and the international community strict sanctions on the movement of -- possible movement of this type of material, and we're fully committed to implementing what's in those resolutions right now and changing, hopefully, the course of some behavior.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, what kind of outreach was there to the House in shaping the Iran resolution?

MR. GIBBS:  I assume some people talked -- were in conversations, but I don't know to what degree.

Q    But definitely --

MR. GIBBS:  I assume that --

Q    Somebody in the White House --

MR. GIBBS:  I assume so, yes.

Q    And on immigration.  What the President talked about this morning sounded similar to what was discussed in the summer of '07.  You said the votes aren't there for it now.  How do you get --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think you get there through the continuation of this dialogue and see if you can come up with ultimately -- I mean, obviously, look, if you put up just what was out there we're going to have to look through that and other ideas.  And I think the President looks forward to -- keep in mind that there will be people at the White House next week that don't agree with where the President and others are.  There are going to be final invitations having gone out.  There are going to be members from both sides of the aisle next week to discuss it.


Q    There's The Wall Street Journal report that President Obama wants to include civil unions to be counted in the census.  Can you talk about that?  Is that something the President wants?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think, obviously, as we've discussed, the President and the administration are committed to a fair and accurate count of all Americans.  And as the piece said, we're in the midst of determining the best way to ensure that gay and lesbian couples are accurately counted.

Q    And just to follow up on John Berry's call that we had the other day when the President signed the memorandum, he talked about the need for a specific number of votes to fulfill the President's campaign promise of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, and he kept saying 60 votes in the Senate.  But is the White House talking to Republicans that might favor the repeal of this?  I know there are a few.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, look, I think the administration -- well, obviously, for math purposes, we're going to have to have a coalition of people that believe, on each of those interests, that the policy isn't serving our nation well.  And the President is committed to making progress on both of those issues.


Q    Robert, back on the question of this apology for slavery.  The Senate resolution also includes a disclaimer of sorts.  It said, "This should never be used to argue for reparations."  The Congressional Black Caucus is very unhappy about that; it may not win their support when it goes back to the House.  Does the President think reparations should be ruled out?

MR. GIBBS:  The President has not and does not favor reparations.

Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you.  In the spirit of the discussion on Iran, have the Russians shared with you the results of their own discussion with the Iranian leader who they hosted recently in their own country?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know the answer to that, whether NSC had discussed --

Q    I really wanted to ask you about the upcoming trip to Russia.  And I know it's probably too early, but can you talk in general about how the President gets ready for such trips, how early he starts, what the preparations involve?  Is there any input from the outside -- outside of the White House?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, the process in many ways for this upcoming and important trip to Moscow started not long after, and in some cases working on specific initiatives, before the G20 in late March.  Obviously, we have a robust agenda with which we hope to discuss, particularly surrounding making -- restarting arms control talks.  And hopefully, by the end of the year coming to an agreement about some specific numbers to eliminate nuclear -- begin to take some steps to eliminate even further nuclear weapons that each side has toward the President's goal ultimately of a nuclear-free world.

Q    I've seen comments in the press suggesting that it's still a different type of a visit, going to Moscow, than going to Europe, for instance, or even going to the Arab world as he has done recently.  Is it really for you?  Is it any different in terms of preparations, in terms of --

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think -- look, I think everybody understands the importance of the issues that are going to be discussed.  I think in many ways the preparation -- the preparation is not that much different.  We certainly hope that we can make some substantive progress on issues that we know are of importance to both sides.


Q    And lastly, when did --

MR. GIBBS:  Maybe we have to move you up to the first row, if you keep asking more questions.  (Laughter.)

Q    When did they last talk, the two Presidents?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know that they've spoken since the G20.  I mean, I know, obviously, General Jones has spoken with his counterpart; Mike McFaul has had many discussions.  But I don't believe the two Presidents have spoken since that date.

Q    In the past week, has the President spoken to any outside-the-government experts on Iran?  And, if so, who?

MR. GIBBS:  I can check.  I don't know that -- I don't --

Q    Has he spoken to anybody on the subject?

MR. GIBBS:  Outside the government?  I don't know the answer to that, but I can certainly check.

Yes, sir.

Q    Earlier in the week, the President said that he felt the supreme leader was aware that the people of Iran were concerned about the election -- I think it's a fair summary of what you said.  Is that still the case, given that the supreme leader said in his speech that Ahmadinejad had won by 11 million votes, and that the Iranians have spoken?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think the international community and the United States continues to have concern about the way in which the election was conducted.  And I think that concern is pretty well held by the hundreds of thousands of people that continue to seek some sort of justice.

Yes, sir.

Q    Was the President disappointed to hear the supreme leader coming out -- he's saying that his opinion is closer to those of Ahmadinejad; they're closer to Ahmadinejad's opinion than to those of Rafsanjani, the reformist who backed Mousavi?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, again, I don't want to get into a back and forth.  I think the President continues to be concerned about ensuring that those that seek the justice that I was just speaking about had the opportunity to do that.  But I don't want to get into a comparison about --

Q    Does he still believe there are different centers of power in Iran?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think we're witnessing the fact that there are different belief structures and different centers in Iran.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    You actually -- just to follow up on something you had discussed in yesterday's briefing.  Can you speak to the U.S.'s or the White House's confidence in Saudi Arabia's relocation program with detainees that (inaudible) terror suspects over there?  And kind of on that same subject, has the White House or has the President been having discussions with anyone from Saudi Arabia, officials of the country, about taking I think it was the Yemeni detainees that are --

MR. GIBBS:  I believe that we have had discussions with the Yemeni government, and have had discussions at different levels with the Saudi government about that program and about detainees that are -- some that have been transferred, and some that are still held at Guantanamo Bay.

Obviously I think the President believes that -- and has said repeatedly, he is not going to make a decision to -- on anything related to Guantanamo that would threaten the security of our country.  But I don't want to get into any depth about some of those discussions.

Q    But did that come up in his conversations --

MR. GIBBS:  Discussing Guantanamo definitely came up.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    I wondered, did the President watch Ayatollah Khomeini's speech?  And then --

MR. GIBBS:  Not that I know of.

Q    And then I also wanted to ask about the House resolution.  You've said repeatedly that the U.S. isn't going to get involved in it, but when more than 400 members of the people's representatives make a clear statement about it, isn't that the U.S. getting involved?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, no, I think, again, let's -- the resolution expresses the support of all Iranian citizens who embrace the values of freedom, human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law.  That's the sort of topic sentence.  I think the President has spoken out throughout the past week on the universal principle contained in each of those values.  And I don't think that expressing support for the ferment or expressing outrage in the violence is meddling in the Iranian process.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    I just wondered if you could clarify, as far as health care tradeoffs.  When you did say that you're willing to reduce health care benefits and subsidies, are you in any way also including health care tax benefits and subsidies?

MR. GIBBS:  I'm sorry?

Q    Are you in any way willing to consider reducing health care tax benefits?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, we've done this like 15 times and I think the President spoke pretty clearly to this in that interview that I discussed a minute ago on financial regulation earlier in the week.

Yes, sir.

Q    Thanks.  If we could go back to inspector general issue.  Senator Grassley issued two letters yesterday and since then he's been really pushing the AmeriCorps issue.  But he issued two letters to both the Treasury Department and the International Trade Commission regarding their inspector general.  And could someone infer that there is a trend in the administration towards inspector general based on --

MR. GIBBS:  If they inferred it, it would be an incorrect inference.

Q    Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS:  Thank you.

Q    Happy Father's Day.

MR. GIBBS:  Happy Father's Day to all you guys.

3:08 P.M. EDT

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